Queen Zenobia of Palmyra: History, Facts, & Achievements

Queen Zenobia of the Palmyrene Empire

From Palmyra on the eastern borders of the Roman Province, Queen Zenobia observed the Roman Empire during the third century’s Imperial Crisis (also known as the Crisis of the Third Century) and took advantage of the situation to identify herself with a century dominated by men on thrones and in bloody battlefields. Her full reign began in 267AD, though she had been an active queen consort beforehand.

As Palmyra itself was wealthy and could enjoy sufficient peace, Zenobia sought to break loose from Roman control and strengthen her authority over Palmyrene territories.

Birth and Family History

Zenobia, born approximately in 240 CE in Palmyra, Syria, was originally named Julia Aurelia Zenobia.

During her time, Syria was under the dominion of the Roman Empire, having been incorporated as a province around 115 AD.

By virtue of her father’s lineage, which had been granted Roman citizenship—likely during Emperor Marcus Aurelius‘ reign (161 to 180 AD) —Zenobia too was a Roman citizen.

Intriguingly, some ancient accounts suggests a connection between her family and Julia Domna, a prominent figure from the Severan Dynasty of Rome (193 – 235).

Well-versed in her education, Zenobia learned Greek and Latin. Although she might have faced challenges with these languages, she was proficient in Egyptian and Aramaic.

It’s also said that she proudly asserted her ancestral ties to two iconic figures: Dido of Carthage and Egypt’s Cleopatra VII.

Marriage and Her Ascension to Power

By the year 258 AD, Zenobia became the wife of Lucius Septimus Odaenthus, the Roman-appointed governor of Syria. Together, they had a son named Vaballathus.

Odaenthus had previously been married, and from that union, he had a son and designated heir named Hairan.

Under Odaenthus’ leadership, the region, particularly the city of Palmyra, thrived. Palmyra held significant strategic importance as a major trading hub on the Silk Road, bridging the eastern and western worlds. Consequently, merchants traveling to and from Rome invariably made stops in Palmyra, whether to pay their due taxes or to rest and recuperate during their long journeys.

Septimius Odaenathus, commonly known as Odaenathus, was a ruler of the city-state of Palmyra in the Roman province of Syria during the mid-3rd century AD. Image: Odaenathus, a bust dated to the 250s

Odaenathus strived to be a monarch of the East and, like his wife, had interest in establishing Palmyra as capital of an empire beyond Roman influence. Unfortunately, he was assassinated in 267 together with Hairan by his kinsmen.

Vaballathus was about 10 years old, still too young to ascend the throne; and as a result,  Zenobia reigned as a regent.

Vaballathus as King on the obverse of a Antoninianus minted in Antioch, 271 AD.

Battles and Achievements

At the onset of her reign, she executed her husband’s assassins and intensified her efforts for Palmyra’s autonomy. During the short reign of emperor Claudius Gothicus in a weakened Roman Empire, she was deemed sovereign.

Still warding off the Persians, she moved on to annex many territories including Syria, Asia Minor and much of Anatolia (now Turkey).

More annexations continued during the late 260 AD’s when she organized her armies led by General Zabdas to capture the Roman province of Alexandria and pushed her Palmyrene authority over significant parts of Egypt.

Zenobia’s possible excuse for invading Roman Egypt

Zenobia was astute in her actions, always ensuring that she did not seem to be directly opposing Rome.

An instance of this is evident during a revolt led by a Syrian-Egyptian named Timagenes against Roman rule, which coincidentally happened while the Roman governor was occupied with a military campaign elsewhere.

Zenobia’s subsequent march towards Egypt could be perceived as a move to support Rome, quelling the uprising and restoring order.

However, there’s a twist in the narrative. Some speculate that Zenobia might have orchestrated the entire situation. According to this theory, she might have sent Timagenes to instigate the revolt, thus providing her with a plausible reason to invade Egypt without appearing to be in open defiance of Rome.

This move would allow her to further her ambitions while maintaining a facade of loyalty to the Roman Empire.

The Palmyrene Empire reaches its zenith under Zenobia’s reign

Having secured control over Egypt, Zenobia swiftly moved to expand her influence through diplomatic overtures to regions of the Levant and Asia Minor, successfully integrating them into her burgeoning Palmyrene Empire. Given the prevailing tumult in Rome and the associated power vacuum, the prosperous Palmyrene Empire emerged as an appealing alternative for the provincial leaders in these territories.

Rome, embroiled in its own internal challenges, found itself ill-equipped to counter Zenobia’s rapid territorial gains. Notably, while Zenobia was undoubtedly carving out an empire of her own, she treaded cautiously, ensuring her actions did not directly instigate an overt confrontation with Rome. Her strategy was to expand and consolidate her power without drawing the ire of the Roman behemoth, striking a balance between ambition and pragmatism.

Following Odaenathus’s death, leadership in Palmyra passed to his second wife, Queen Zenobia, who acted as regent for their young son, Vaballathus. Under Zenobia, Palmyra reached its zenith of power, further extending its influence in the East before ultimately coming into conflict with Rome. Image: The Palmyrene Empire at its peak in 271

Defeat at the hands of Emperor Aurelian

Roman Emperor Aurelian (reign: c. May 270 – c. October 275) was triggered to take Rome’s eastern territories back from the Palmyrene Empire after Zenobia pronounced her son “Augustus” Caesar and herself as Empress or “Augusta” of Rome in 271 AD. Those titles were reserved only for the imperial family of the Roman emperor.

Zenobia adeptly managed her expanding empire, engaging in multifaceted diplomacy and strategic economic endeavors. She brokered trade agreements, navigated diplomatic negotiations with the Sassanid Persians, and annexed territories, all while operating largely autonomously, without seeking Rome’s approval or aligning with its interests.

By 271 AD, Zenobia’s influence was undeniable; she commanded an expansive empire that spanned regions from what is today Iraq, reaching across Turkey and extending down to Egypt. Her swift and independent actions in both diplomacy and territorial expansion showcased her vision and capability as a leader, even as they further distanced her from Roman oversight.

In the ensuing Battle of Immae in 272 AD, her forces were defeated by Aurelian’s near Antioch, and the remaining of her forces fled to Palmyra where Zenobia mounted tough resistance with her archers and cavalry.

Aurelian’s forces pressed the battle harder and ultimately managed to capture the Palmyrene queen and Vaballathus at the Euphrates.

The mother and son were held in hostage to Rome, and, among the various stories concerning what happened in Rome, she blamed her actions on the counsel of Cassius Longinus who was executed.


Despite widely held beliefs, Zenobia did not instigate a rebellion against Rome.

Furthermore, the widely depicted scene of her being paraded in chains (per the account of the Historia Augusta) through the streets of Rome may not have occurred.

Additionally, it’s quite likely that the Emperor Aurelian did not order her execution.

Some sources suggest that after the triumphal procession, Zenobia was granted a villa in Tibur (modern-day Tivoli, near Rome). Here, she supposedly lived out her days in comfort, married a Roman senator, and had descendants.

Lucius Domitius Aurelianus, commonly known as Aurelian, reigned as Roman Emperor from 270 to 275 AD. He is best known for his efforts to reunite the fractured Roman Empire, which had fragmented into several separate entities by the time he took the throne. Image: Aurelian, personification of Sol, defeats the Palmyrene Empire, and celebrates ORIENS AVG – oriens Augusti: the rising sun/star of Augustus.


Before her reign, Zenobia had followed Odaenathus on his hunting expedition, and shared his ambitions of conquest. She learnt battlefield strategies by fighting alongside her husband to expand Palmyra.

The Palmyrene queen also kept a circle of philosophers and intellectuals like the Platonist Cassius Longinus. She played submissive under Roman rule and subtly subdued their authority over Palmyra without revolting or battling Rome directly.

She worked on military campaigns with her generals and had personally led and marched on foot with her army to battlefields.

Given her successes, Zenobia began to assert her independence from Rome. She started to be called the “Empress,” and there are claims she even envisioned a Palmyrene Empire that could rival Rome. Image: Coin of Zenobia as empress with Juno on the reverse, AD 272

Debates on Ancestry

Queen Zenobia claimed Egypt as her “ancestral city” after annexation of Alexandria. She even claimed to have lineage go to Queen Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt.

Based on the inscription “Septimia Bat-Zabbai, daughter of Antiochus”, some scholars have asserted that Zenobia was a distant relative of the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, husband of the Ptolemaic Cleopatra Thea.

However, her fluency in Aramaic, Egyptian, Greek and Latin make her ancestry confusing. As intermarriages were common among the noble families in the Palmyrene Empire, it is not unthinkable that she could share the same Syrian lineage with Odaenathus.

Memorials and Legacy

Zenobia was born sometime around AD 240 in Palmyra, Syria. She was said to be intelligent, beautiful, and highly educated. She was reportedly fluent in multiple languages, including Greek, Aramaic, and Egyptian. Image: Zenobia as empress on the obverse of an antoninianus (AD 272)

Queen Zenobia left a legacy of bravery and heroism and, as asserted by historian David Graf, she assumed the responsibility of her underage son as well as continued the expansionary efforts of her husband Odaenathus.

The Palmyrene queen featured prominently in the 4th century “Historia Augustus”. Account of her life also feature in works of a number of early historians, including Zonaras, Adi ibn Zayed. 19th century authors Salim al-Bustani, and Ilyas Matar also wrote about her.

Her influence has ran through all forms of arts and culture; American author Harriet Hosmer launched two sculptures of Zenobia in the late 1850s.

Famed Russian empress Catherine the Great, like many ambitious women, compared herself to Zenobia’s might and intelligence.

Also, a 274 AD coin minted in Alexandria bore Zenobia’s face.

Zenobia became queen after the death of her husband, Odaenathus, who had been the ruler of Palmyra. She served as a regent for her young son, Vaballathus. Image: “Queen Zenobia’s Last Look Upon Palmyra” by English painter Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1888, via The Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Al-Tabari’s portrayal of Zenobia

The 9th-century historian, Al-Tabari, provides a vivid portrayal of Zenobia, emphasizing her physical prowess and resilience. He describes her as an accomplished horse-rider, noted for her remarkable endurance and vitality.

The Arabic retelling by Al-Tabari presents a captivating aspect of her youth: she was entrusted with overseeing her family’s livestock and shepherds. This responsibility, undertaken at a young age, cultivated her leadership qualities, preparing her to command and influence men.

Additionally, Al-Tabari highlights Zenobia’s exceptional leadership and dedication; she would walk great lengths alongside her soldiers rather than ride in comfort.

Beyond her martial qualities, she was also reputed to be an adept hunter, matching or even surpassing her male counterparts in skill. Furthermore, she was renowned for her ability to consume alcohol, outlasting anyone in drinking contests or feasts.

Finally, in Al-Tabari’s version, the story doesn’t mention the Roman Emperor Aurelian or any conflicts with Rome related to Zenobia’s downfall.

According to Al-Tabari, Zenobia’s trouble begins when she kills Jadhima, a tribal chief, on their wedding night.

Jadhima’s nephew seeks revenge for his uncle’s death and chases Zenobia to Palmyra.

Sensing danger, Zenobia attempts to escape on a camel and aims for the Euphrates River. The Palmyrene queen had previously planned for such contingencies and had commissioned the construction of a tunnel beneath the river.

Just as she is about to use this escape route, she is captured.

As for her end, Al-Tabari presents two possibilities: either she takes her own life using poison or is executed by her captors.

This narrative starkly contrasts with the Roman accounts, which focus on her conflicts with Rome and capture by Emperor Aurelian.

The differences highlight the cultural and historical perspectives of the sources and underscore the challenges in ascertaining definitive historical truths about figures like Zenobia, whose lives have been mythologized over the centuries.

The fate of Zenobia, according to Zosimus

The fate of Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra, remains a subject of debate among historians, and different sources provide conflicting accounts of her end.

Zosimus, a fifth-century historian, provides two distinct narratives:

  1. He mentions that Zenobia and her son drowned in the Bosphorus while being taken to Rome.
  2. Contradictorily, he also claims that Zenobia reached Rome (without her son), faced trial, and was subsequently acquitted. After her acquittal, she was said to have lived in a villa and later married a Roman.

Given these discrepancies, it’s challenging to determine with certainty the exact circumstances of Zenobia’s fate. However, it’s clear from various accounts that her legacy was significant enough for historians to document her life and actions, even if the details vary.

Other interesting facts about Zenobia

Ancient sources often extol Zenobia for her many virtues, with a particular emphasis on her chastity. She held a firm belief that the act of intimacy should be solely for procreation. After her marriage, she adhered to this principle, choosing to be intimate with her husband only with the intention of bearing children.

In some accounts, it’s said that Zenobia’s husband Odaenthus and her step son Hairan were assassinated by a disgruntled nephew following a disagreement. However, speculations rose in some quarters suggesting Zenobia’s potential involvement in orchestrating this assassination, with the motive being to pave the way for her own son’s ascension to power. Nevertheless, most subsequent scholars and historians have dismissed this theory, deeming it unfounded.

Questions and Answers

In 272 AD, the Roman and Palmyrene forces clashed in a series of battles, with Aurelian employing strategic tactics to defeat Zenobia’s armies at Immae and Emesa. Image: The Triumph of Aurelian or Queen Zenobia in front of Aurelian, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1717, Museo del Prado, Madrid

How did Emperor Aurelian defeat Zenobia?

In 272 AD, a pivotal encounter between Aurelian’s and Zenobia’s forces occurred outside the city of Daphne, known as the Battle of Immae. Aurelian, employing a strategic ruse, pretended to retreat, leading Zenobia’s forces on a tiring chase. Seizing the opportune moment, Aurelian’s forces then executed a pincer maneuver, catching the exhausted Palmyrene troops off-guard. This tactic led to a decisive victory for Aurelian, resulting in a heavy defeat and mass casualties for the Palmyrenes.

Following this defeat, Queen Zenobia, accompanied by her chief general Zabdas, hastily retreated to the city of Emesa. This city held significance for Zenobia, not only because it was home to additional troops but also because it housed her treasury, a vital asset in her continued resistance against Rome.

After a battle outside Emesa, where Aurelian once again outsmarted Zenobia’s forces using a similar tactic as in the previous encounter, the Romans emerged victorious, leading to the capture of the city and presumably its treasury.

Yet, Zenobia managed to escape and retreated to Palmyra to fortify its defenses, vowing to fight to her last breath.

When expected Persian reinforcements didn’t arrive, Zenobia, accompanied by her son, attempted to flee to Persia. Aurelian’s forces, however, caught up to her while she was crossing the Euphrates River.

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